Overall Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
“Our world was fractured; our only hope was to advance beyond it.”
Oh my word! James – you have well and truly nailed this book and I enjoyed every second! I read and reviewed another of James Suriano’s books a while back, The Water Crown, and even though I really enjoyed it, this book is definitely my favourite so far – I’m sure you’ll all love it too! I’m so happy to share my review of this thrilling and somewhat disturbing book…
Under the crushing weight of servitude and desperation a mother fights back.
After the tsunami, Shula could have stayed in her devastated but recovering village in Sri Lanka. But when a Middle Eastern man, speaking perfect Sinhala, shows up with a glossy brochure and promises of money to be made in Dubai as a domestic helper, she makes the difficult decision to leave her two young children and take the trip. When she arrives in Dubai, the city’s wealth and beauty astound her, and the new house where she’ll be working as a housecleaner appears exactly as advertised.
The first clue something isn’t right, however, comes when a picture of a young man shows up in her bathroom medicine cabinet. The second clue is the noises coming from behind it.
The deadly forces of nature threatened to take Shula’s life once, but here the powers operating behind the glittery desert mirage threaten to devour her and never leave a trace.
I was pulled into this story instantly with such a powerful, heart-wrenching scene that was filled with emotion and horror, something I did not expect to read this early on! This opening was quite the experience – we hear how one character and her children are close to death after a tsunami hits, and the author’s delivery of this scene really hits you hard. Description is striking and even a few pages in, I was wishing that these characters got out of this ordeal alive. It was incredibly easy to feel attached to these characters, and I think involving children in such a terrifying event makes this even more saddening. Reading this story reminded me of the previous book I read by this author, and just how vivid and memorable the vocabulary was – this story gave me that exact same feeling. I found the opening to the book to be really strong and it made me so optimistic for the journey to come. I was already asking questions!
Placing myself into a small Sri Lankan village was so easy in this book. The description from the author is simply beautiful, and the consistency of it all made me feel as though I was experiencing everything first hand. Our main character in this book, Shula, seems to be healing from the horrors of the tsunami and losing her husband when she is approached with an attractive offer. She’s promised a year of work for riches and a better life for herself and her two children. The opportunity was too good to pass up on, and so she travels by boat to a new life. I really felt Shula’s uncertainty about leaving her children after nearly losing them to a tsunami, but her desire to give them a better future is too strong. I loved learning of Shula traveling to Dubai, a place where everything from the people to the bathroom was foreign to her. I did wonder whether this opportunity was too good to be true, and if she would ever see those children again.
Shula’s job as a domestic helper for a rich family soon becomes the kind of job she’d rather not do, and she begins to fear for her safety. It was clear these people were in need of cheap labour, someone to work for them, someone they didn’t have to treat like a normal human being. Even though Mohamed treated Shula poorly, she at least had Ousha, who could speak her language and communicate with her when needed. I loved just how much of a dark turn we experience after Shula finds a strange note in the bathroom – who had left this note, and why did it seem as though there was danger lying ahead? The author succeeded in making me a little cautious about Shula’s new journey and I must have felt just as apprehensive as her as she carried out her daily chores. I was dying to know more, and thankfully, there wasn’t long to wait! Suspense is built perfectly and makes us desperate for answers – just what were this family hiding?
“I could only process what had happened in slow motion. I tried mightily to push my mind from one assumption to the next but they came in baby steps.”
Learning more about Ousha’s life fascinated me, and the author had managed to amaze me yet again with mountains of flawless description and attention to detail. I found it unusual that Shula was being forced to look after a new born that wasn’t hers and I became curious of Mohamed and Ousha’s relationship. The author has managed to keep a great pace to the story, whilst drip-feeding us pieces of the puzzle that we can put together bit by bit. Already, the story had managed to captivate me and my emotions, and it was extremely difficult to take a break from reading. After such a compelling opening, just how will Shula’s life continue in Dubai? Would she ever solve the mystery of the hidden note, or travel back to her hometown to be reunited with her children? Each character we meet has been developed so well, each with unique personalities and traits to learn from. I couldn’t wait for what was in store for them!
Hearing how Mohamed and Ousha’s relationship turns sour was frightening, but so so powerful to read. There was so much more to this relationship than meets the eye, and a lot of it is explained in such an unexpected and gripping way. We learn of secrets about the house boy who lived with this family before Shula, and we come to learn of his unfortunate, but worrying death. Just what had happened in the lead up to his passing? Mohamed’s dark side is unleashed; bringing men home and abusing them was difficult to read sometimes, but essential in the overall impact of the story on the reader. Shula is determined to find out the whole truth and ensure that no one else suffers, including her, and the child she has been told to look after and treat as her own. I love the direction the story was taking – the author certainly seems to be getting better and better with each book I read. I was so attached to Shula and just knew she wouldn’t disappoint!
I was so interested in Shula’s past, especially in one scene where she speaks about time with her father. The author is an absolute wordsmith in this scene and all others, and I often became overwhelmed with just how much his words captured my full attention and emotions. This was particularly evident in a scene involving baby Maryam – we’re suddenly hit with some of the most devastating news I could have imagined, something I felt a lot of readers would be affected by. The author has made this scene so upsetting yet compelling, and I felt as though someone had given me a punch to the stomach. After becoming so invested in the story, this piece of news was shattering, and would have a significant impact in the second half of the story. I just knew Shula would make the right decisions from here, and I could already see how her confidence and determination would grow as a result. Incredible storytelling!
Shula continues on her journey, fleeing Mohamed and finding her own way back to Sri Lanka. Her experiences are uncertain, and even when reading, I wasn’t sure whether she’d ever get home. I really loved the thrilling, almost creepy story line at the beginning of the book, and I only hoped we’d see more of it – it worked so well, and the author pulled it off perfectly! It wasn’t long before this was explored in different ways; she returns home to find one of her own has been claimed like she was, just after she’d managed to escape the hell of Dubai. I felt every tiny bit of her disappointment and worry here, and the author has really portrayed these feelings and this character so well. Would her threats to people of authority get her what she wants? Would she be forced to travel back to the place she’s left to ensure her child returned home safely? It was becoming difficult to know who to trust, but I felt as though Shula was much better prepared for what lay ahead of her this time.
“Now I was the subject, the prey, and the predator was breathing heavily and waiting.”
The story gets more complex, but even so, it was very easy to get caught up in Shula’s tasks to get back where she needs to be. With her daughter by her side, Shula’s main goal became more important. Her selflessness shines through at this part of the story, and we learn of just how caring and considerate she truly is for those who need her help along the way, despite how much she wants to save herself and her children as a priority. The middle of the story is incredibly gripping with characters who have complex and perfectly developed personalities. Shula and Mohamed were two of the most memorable characters I’ve come across in recent times, and I found myself so focused on each scene to see their next actions and their chosen path. I loved how the author cleverly makes the reader think they know exactly how things will play out, but soon makes you question yourself as another amazing scene switches things up. I was so excited to see where the ending of the book took these characters!
Mohamed becomes a worry yet again for Shula and I wasn’t sure they’d be able to get away from him again. However, with a new family to serve, I felt like Shula and her daughter were in much safer hands than her last trip to Dubai. I loved hearing more about Fata and Jaseem – even though Shula was still wary of any family in this place, there was something different about these two. I was so impressed with how much the author forces the reader to have such solid opinions of new characters as they emerge, and the skill to portray all characters as he has done was just phenomenal to me. The story seemed unpredictable at this point, and it was interesting to think about all the different possibilities for the ending of the story. Would Shula find a life here in Dubai forever? Would she ever be reunited with or son, or even see her home again? I felt Shula had a long way to go before she got any answers for herself.
The story manages to take the reader on such a unique journey, a journey which you initially don’t expect. As the ending of the book got closer, it dawned on me just how much I’d grown to appreciate Shula and the horrific life she lives, just because she has to. Her story is so saddening, but I think any reader can take away her immense strength and bravery – every obstacle in her way, she has overcome in a way that many people wouldn’t have been able to cope. Of course, this food for thought is all down to the author, and his fantastic way with words. Each character is vivid, many are relatable, and some you just can’t help but downright loathe. The importance of family is clear with Shula in particular, and I was curious to see if she’d do exactly what she needed to in order to get home this time round. I think it’s safe to say that I’ll be quite sad when I finish reading this book!
Shula is tasked with the unthinkable, and even though it was a last resort, it was necessary to get her out of the hell she was about to face yet again if she stayed in Mohamed’s house. The suspense to the end of the book is built perfectly, and we’re left wondering whether Shula can really go ahead with what she has been told she must do. I found myself thinking of the consequences if things went wrong, and even how quickly she’d be able to return home if things went smoothly. I also felt a little stress build up inside for if anyone began to catch on to Shula and Ousha’s plan! The pacing of this part of the story in particular was perfect, and I found myself hanging onto the author’s every word, eager for the each scene to play out. Just what would the outcome be? With escape and freedom so close yet so far, I just knew the ending of the book would be something special.
“It was enough to be poor in a land of wealth, but to suffer the embarrassments of that poverty could tear a render soul apart quicker than the pain of hunger.”
Coming to terms with what she has done, Shula flees, and finally attempts to make her way home once and for all. But would the trip be everything she expected? Would the process be a simple one? I enjoyed the final few chapters of the book very much and thought the conclusion was well thought out. At so many points in the few remaining pages, I was still unsure whether Shula and her daughter would ever get home, but I thought the way things ended gave us a good indication of the inevitable. By this point in the book, we see Shula as a mother who will fight tirelessly for what is right by her and her family and that she will stop at nothing until she gets there, showing immense strength unlike anything you’ve ever experienced. A fabulous read and wholly deserving of five stars!
This book was a very different take on the thriller genre I know and love, but I enjoyed every bit immensely! There was also so many other genres crammed inside that really made the whole plot stand out. In this story, you can see how the strength and determination of one mother is built from experiencing human trafficking first hand and months of serving a rich family with almost no way out. The words are powerful and captivating, making this book one hell of an addictive read. Prepare for an emotional ride and an almost unhealthy attachment to the main characters – an amazing reading experience that I’d be happy to experience again and again!
A huge thank you to the author, James Suriano, for my copy of this book to read and review! Empire of Mud is available for pre-order on Amazon now, available on December 1st! Make sure you’re following the author over on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for more updates.